As brain research advances, experts are finding that some of the physical and mental changes normally associated with aging may not actually be normal at all, but instead, the result of treatable and preventable health conditions. In fact, by some estimates, only 30 percent of physical aging can be traced to our genes. The rest is up to each individual.
According to the AARP Andrus Foundation, developing and maintaining good "cognitive health" is as important to a person's quality of life at any age as maintaining good physical health. A series of four new booklets, "Staying Sharp: Current Advances in Brain Research," provides information and tips based on this new research. The booklets were derived from a series of public forums that were conducted in partnership with the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, and featured the country's foremost researchers, scientists and physicians working in the field of aging and the brain. These four booklets provide some of the most up-to-date information available.
One of the key findings of this new research is that diet and exercise are crucial not just for physical well being, but also for mental acuity at any age.
The Importance of Diet
The food choices we make throughout our lives can make a difference in the likelihood for many diseases that cause premature death or disability, including heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes. Three long-term studies being conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health have followed 300,000 people and suggest that:
- a diet rich in vegetables may help prevent breast and prostate cancer
- colon cancer is more common among those who eat more red meat
- high-fat diets increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and some cancers
- a diet with too many refined carbohydrates increases the risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
Although there are some nutritional changes associated with aging, for the most part, what was considered a healthy diet at 40 will still be a healthy diet at 60 or 70. Health experts recommend a diet that emphasizes whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables as well as other tips:
- Drink eight to 10 cups of fluid every day, and make at least five of those water. Limit caffeinated and alcoholic beverages.
- Reduce the amount of saturated fat in your diet and replace it with monounsaturated fat such as that in olive, canola, sunflower, safflower and soybean oils.
- When snacking, choose fruits, vegetables or whole-grain products.
- Make eating fun by sharing dinnertime with family and friends, or joining community functions whenever possible.
The Benefits of Exercise
Many experts believe that regular exercise is the single most important thing anyone can do to improve overall health and well-being. New studies show that aerobic activity increases levels of brain chemicals that encourage the growth of nerve cells, which may be the reason moderately strenuous exercise is associated with enhanced memory skills.
Some ways that exercise can help retain mental capacity include:
- reducing anxiety and stress
- improving mood and possibly alleviating depression
- improving sleep
- increasing energy levels
- slowing the rate of bone loss
- enabling the body to use insulin more efficiently
- improving cardiovascular health
- controlling weight and preventing obesity
The National Institute of Aging suggests incorporating four types of exercises into your life. Endurance exercise, such as walking, helps increase stamina. Strength exercise, with free weights or resistance weights, increases metabolism and may help prevent osteoporosis. Flexibility exercise, such as stretching or yoga, prevents and aids recovery from injuries. And balance exercises, such as standing on one foot, help prevent falls.
By following these basic tips, as well as any advice from your physician related to any specific health conditions, it is possible to live well in old age as opposed to just living into old age.
The AARP Andrus Foundation's "Staying Sharp" series can be downloaded from the association's Web site at www.andrus.org/sharp/sharp_pubs.html. Each booklet covers a specific area: Memory Loss and Aging; Depression; Chronic Health Issues and Quality of Life. The booklets also are available by mail from AARP Fulfillment, 601 E Street NW, Washington, DC 20049, or by phone at 800-424-3410 and ask for series D17561 to get the booklets in English or D17461 to get the booklets in Spanish.